Preservation is at forefront of McCall Wines’ Cutchogue tasting room

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Rustic is a trending aesthetic. Characterized by exposed wood beams and repurposed décor, it is a style that McCall Wines in Cutchogue masters effortlessly, in part because it’s the way the tasting room has always been.

After stepping into the 80-year-old potato barn, previously used as a stable for owner Russ McCall’s polo horses, and sipping the aged reds under the rafters, it is evident that authenticity and quality are ingrained. From the horse cribbing indents at the forefront of the stalls, now used as seating areas, to the concrete buttresses reinforcing the time-worn wooden walls, the space serves as a reminder of the North Fork’s agricultural past.

The tasting room is surrounded by history. (Credit: David Benthal)

“This farm is a throwback to the days when everyone put their name on the wine they made and it was a family estate; it is not argitourism,” the 75-year-old McCall said. “We don’t do buses, we don’t do weddings, we don’t do any big commercial ventures. We are more concerned about our name going on a high-end product than making money.”

Small and intimate, it has no live music on weekends or frozen wine concoctions of any sort. The McCall tasting room welcomes serious and inquisitive wine drinkers who oftentimes get the chance to talk directly with McCall and his wife, Nicola Plimpton, who are happy to discuss the nuances of each vintage and the rich history of the 108-acre property.

“They are so generous with the time and knowledge,” said Plainview resident Bill Break, who has been visiting the winery annually with his friends for eight years. “It is always a stop for us. We’re so pleased that Russ is at the tasting room and is always willing to talk with us about what we’re drinking.”

Just beyond the vineyard is the 19th-century home on the Peconic Bay that’s been in the McCall family for more than a century. He spent his childhood summering in Cutchogue and was always drawn to the history and agriculture of the North Fork. McCall describes his venture into viticulture as a natural evolution of his role in the wine trade.

Inside the tasting barn at McCall Wines. (Credit: David Benthal)

The tasting room recounts of the legacy of the land and its founder through old photographs hanging on the walls. One of the black-and- white photos framed inside the stalls depicts a 21-year-old McCall behind the counter of his Atlanta, Ga. cheese shop, which he opened after college in the 1960s. McCall went on to spend nearly four decades in the wine distribution business as the one-time owner of Atlanta Wholesale Wine, where he developed a love for pinot noir and merlot, varieties he would eventually grow on the North Fork.

Since returning to the North Fork full-time 20 years ago, McCall has spent a considerable fortune preserving the land he grew up on. In 1996, he teamed up with the Peconic Land Trust to save Downs Woods and the farmland adjacent to his family’s property from the threat of a condominium development. The site, once known as Fort Corchaug and now as Downs Farm Preserve, was once home to the Algonquin Indian tribe.

The conservation deal gave Southold Town 51 acres of Fort Corchaug land for preservation and McCall ownership of 54 acres of open farmland once used to grow potatoes.

The potato barn-turned-tasting room was a part of the sale and from its sliding wooden doors visitors can look out on the original 22 acres of merlot and pinot noir vines McCall planted with the help of veteran viticulturist Steve Mudd. At the time, the two varieties were uncommon on the North Fork, leading McCall and Mudd to travel to pinot-centric Oregon to gauge the possibility of growing it on Long Island.

“Everyone called it the heartbreak grape,” McCall said. “But they were wines I like so I wanted to grow what I loved. We researched it for a year and found there would be really no problem growing them.”

With the focus on quality, using sustainable, low-yield vineyard practices, McCall wines are today among the most esteemed in the Long Island wine region. The small vineyard produces more than 5,000 cases per year. The first vintage was in 2007, when McCall founded his namesake winery.

Russ McCall founded the vineyard in the 1990s. (Credit: David Benthal)

He waited three more years to open the tasting room, all while keeping sustainable agriculture at the forefront, erecting a wind turbine to provide the farm with clean energy and raising organic, grass-fed Charolais cattle in the fields behind the vines.

In 2011, the vineyard acquired old vine cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay across the street from the Main Road tasting room and expanded the plantings on that site to include sauvignon blanc, petit verdot and syrah.

Though the old vines yield less fruit, the mature grapes make for distinctive wines. The effort and resulting vintages have garnered numerous accolades over the years, including being named “Winery of the Year” at the 2013 New York Wine & Food Classic, where the award was presented by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

With so much going on behind the scenes of the working winery, there were few renovations made to the tasting barn before opening to the public. The dirt floor in the center was replaced by concrete, the spider webs were cleared from the loft beams and fresh wood shavings were used to cover the bottom of the seating areas in the stalls. There are new restrooms and a temperature-controlled wine cellar out of sight in the back. The main tasting barn does not have central air conditioning or heat.

McCall Wines vineyards are sustainably grown. (Credit: David Benthal)

“It is more important for the wine to be comfortable than the people,” McCall said with a tongue-in-cheek laugh. In the cooler fall months, a small but powerful fireplace warms the space while providing mood lighting for conversations.

The tasting room is outfitted with conversation-sparking vintage finds, such as old-fashioned ski shoes found on a trip to Maine and a wine barrel counter made from French oak barrels that once aged McCall reds for at least five years. A lamp above the counter is another repurposed barrel with exposed staves mounted inversely to the fixture and adorned with burlap accents created by a local artist.

“Every time people walk in they look around in awe,” said Plimpton, who plays a vital role in the day-to-day tasting room operations. “People always ask a lot of questions about the décor, but it is the ambience in the fall that is unforgettable as the sun goes down. It feels like a home away from home.”

Maps outlining the land McCall preserved along with blacksmith-made broad axes and various antique farming equipment line the walls, further illustrating the property’s place in North Fork history.

“The idea of the old tools and keeping the original stalls is to show the past is relevant here,” McCall said. “It shows that you have to go slow, and good things, like wine, take time. You can’t rush.”

McCall Wines is located at 22600 Main Road, Cutchogue